Alex Chilton has been a significant music presence for over 30 years. Beginning in 1967, when he was a mere teenager, he fronted the Box Tops and scored major hits with “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” Despite the act’s success, a discontented Chilton dissolved the Memphis-based blue-eyed soul band prior to his twentieth birthday, storming offstage midway through a performance. The members have since reconciled and now play a handful of venues each year on the oldies circuit.
In the early-to-mid Seventies, Chilton presided over the seminal Anglo-pop band Big Star. While that outfit’s three critically revered studio albums (#1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers) were publicly ignored upon release, Big Star would later garner an enormous cult following, influencing post-punk groups like R.E.M. and Teenage Fanclub. Chilton’s songwriting contributions from this era had such a profound effect on the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg that he immortalized his hero in the 1987 college radio staple “Alex Chilton.” Feeding the Big Star fever, Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens took disciples Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (both of the Posies) on the road in 1993 to perform as Big Star.
Since 1975, Chilton has been releasing albums under his own moniker and on his own terms. With snarled early solo efforts like Bach’s Bottom and Like Flies on Sherbert, he appeared to be an artist unraveling, but by the mid-Eighties Chilton was earning praise for R&B-tinged efforts like Feudalist Tarts and High Priest. On his new album Set – his first since 1995’s blues-inflected A Man Called Destruction – Chilton interprets gospel, country and jazz offerings with appropriate tact.
Why did you decide to do a covers album?
The French record label I’ve been dealing with for the last fifteen years kept asking, “When are you gonna do a new album for us, Alex?” So back around last winter I thought to myself, “I’ve got an idea that I think will work out,” and it just sort of found a life of it’s own. These were a bunch of tunes that my band and I had been performing live for a few years now, and we knew them really well.
You recorded the entire album in New York in just one night. Do you think there’s a benefit to that sort of speedy approach?
Yeah [laughs]. If you can get up onstage and play twelve or thirteen songs in twenty-five minutes, what’s the point in making it take longer? A lot of people like to put together music in a recording studio track by track, and that has a certain charm about it I suppose, but you’ll never get the spontaneity of a live performance.
The European version of Set is titled Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy. Why the change?
The American label, Bar/None, thought it would be better to give it a more suitable title, whereas the French record company didn’t mind a more controversial title. In fact, they probably preferred it.
What do you think of Cheap Trick’s take on “In the Street” [used as the theme to the Fox-TV sitcom That 70’s Show]?
I haven’t heard it.
Really? Is it true that you only get $70 in royalties per airing?
Yeah. It’s actually ironic that the amount is $70. To me it’s “That $70 Show.”
Do you think being a publicly recognized figure can be an inconvenience?
It’s not like I’m a “big star” [laughs] constantly getting noticed, but I do get recognized. What’s nice is that the people in my neighborhood just know me as Alex. It’s funny, because I spent so much of my life moving from place to place and I went through a few dark periods, but in the last few years I’ve kind of settled down.
Do you have any plans to play again as Big Star?
I guess we don’t have any plans. But I sure hope that we do it again. It was great the last time.
What does it feel like to go back onstage with the Box Tops and perform those hits again after thirty years?
When the band’s good, it’s fun. But it’s sporadic sometimes. When it’s sporadic you start to think about leaving it alone.
Was it difficult being a pop star at such a young age?
I don’t really have anything to compare it to, because I’ve been performing in the public eye since I was sixteen. In fact, at the time I was failing the tenth grade and I was going to have to repeat my sophomore year in high school, but I got lucky and had a No. 1 hit that summer. So my mom and dad were like, “Why don’t you go ahead and give this ‘rock’ thing a try?”
Your songs from the Big Star era have been covered so frequently, is there one particular interpretation that you’re particularly fond of?
I remember hearing Garbage’s version of “Thirteen” a few years back and thinking it was really good, but in general I don’t think that there’s any one that’s all that great. But it can be flattering when someone does it right.
Have you been writing any new material recently?
Oh yeah. I’ve been writing for the past year — not just songs and music but I’ve been keeping a journal and have written over 1500 pages in about ten months. It’s great to write about people I know and to organize my thoughts.
Do you ever envision putting out your life story as a book?
I haven’t really thought about it, but I suppose I might like to.